May 28, 2023




In this 8020Info Water Cooler  we step up “the ladder of responsibility” for decision-making, put employee complaints in categories, pose questions to ask before hiring someone you know socially, offer tips for marketing, reading and dealing with turnover, and counsel you to consider context. Enjoy!

1. The Ladder of Responsibility for Choices

After leaders announce a proposed strategy, they must outline the types of implementation choices their key subordinates face.

“You can’t specify the answer, but you must specify the choices you need them to tackle,” says Roger Martin, former dean of the Rotman School of Management, on Medium.

Team members will vary in their ability to take responsibility for such choices.

  • The highest level of responsibility occurs when they feel capable and don’t need the help you could offer them. Rather, they make the choice and inform you of their decision.
  • At the next highest level of responsibility on his ladder, they come back with a recommendation on their decision, and you assist by either affirming their choice or intervening to handle flaws.
  • At the middle level, they offer possibilities for your consideration. “This is for situations in which it is too complex for them to take their thinking to the point of a recommendation. But they are capable of helping you by coming up with a range of possibilities,” he explains.
  • At a lower level of responsibility, they do some work on structuring the choice but fall short of being able to generate a set of possibilities.
  • A rung below that is they watch and learn as you deal with the choice in question.
  • Finally, when you lack confidence in the team member, the lowest level of responsibility is to make the choice yourself.

Over time, you want to help people move up the Ladder of Responsibility.

2. Handling Four Types of Employee Complaints

Complaining is an essential and often unavoidable aspect of organizational communication.

“Complaining can harm the collective mood, individual relationships, and organizational culture,” IMD Business School professor Alyson Meister and behavioural scientist Nele Dael write in Harvard Business Review.

“But when done effectively, complaining can help manage risks, provide early red flags, uncover opportunities for growth and change, and even boost relationships and well-being,”

They break complaints into four types:

  • Productive: These complaints are intended to bring an undesirable situation to light and stimulate improvements.
  • Venting: The intent behind these complaints may be to release bottled-up stress or frustration, seek allies, be heard and acknowledged, or generate support for an idea.
  • Chronic: Burdened with a negative mindset, these grumblers have a more pessimistic or critical view of their role, their work, and the world around them.
  • Malicious: This is a destructive form of complaining used to undermine colleagues or gain an unfair advantage.

Meister and Dael say when you first hear of a complaint, be grateful to the messenger for trusting you to do something about it. Even if the complaint is laced with negativity, be curious and open.

Encourage and help facilitate more constructive complaining. For example, they note you might create opportunities at regular intervals for employees to provide feedback and ideas for improvement in constructive ways.

Tackle destructive complaints. You don’t want matters to fester. But you also don’t want colleagues angry with a chronic or malicious complainer to keep you from acting on what may be legitimate concerns.

3. Make Someone Happy

Sales consultant Ray Bard argues that every dazzling product success is made from four components, and everyone, everywhere knows the first two.

The first is a Big Idea.

The second is the nuts and bolts — how to implement the idea, with some examples.

The third is entertainment.

“Entertainment is the currency that will buy you the time and attention of a too-busy public. Information is the medicine they need, but entertainment — wit, charm or enchantment — are the spoonfuls of sugar that help the medicine go down,” he told The Marketing Memo’s Roy Williams.

Fourth is hope. “People don’t just need advice; they need genuine encouragement,” Bard explained.

“When you give them a glimpse of a future that is better than the past, when you help them see a tomorrow that is better than today, and they see it is within their grasp, you have done the only thing that any business ever needs to do.”

The objective of every business, he summed up, is to make someone happy.

4. A Tip to Counter Team Turnover

Managers who want to keep employees from quitting should consider reordering the flow of their tasks, advises Wharton management professor Maurice Schweitzer.

That’s based on a massive study he conducted with colleagues, looking at two million text conversations over five years between 14,383 trained volunteers at a crisis hotline and the people who reached out to them for help.

It found people are far more likely to quit when given too many difficult assignments in a row, compared with a workflow that is balanced out with easier tasks.

“Breaking up long streaks of challenging assignments may be one of the simplest ways that managers can reduce employee burnout and boost retention,” Knowledge at Wharton reports.

5. Zingers

  • Mosquitoes, Quicksand and Dragons: In today’s distributed work environment, encourage your employees to call for help as soon as they hit an obstacle. Here’s one system that’s easy to grasp: A “mosquito” problem should be quashed immediately; for a “quicksand” problem, they need help to get out of a fix; and “dragon” problems are serious issues that need escalation to higher authority.  (Source: Harvard Business Review).
  • Kill the Overkill: The smartest organizations know the value of avoiding overkill, argues Basecamp co-founder Jason Fried. Overkill includes seven steps that could be handled in two; nine people in a meeting made for three; and extra technology purchased but never used. Hunt out and eliminate the waste of overkill. (Source: Jason Fried).
  • Let it Go: If someone admits they made a mistake, have the grace to let it go, advises Farnam Street blogger Shane Parrish. Holding it over them will discourage them from admitting they were wrong in the future. (Source: FS Blog).
  • Compromise or Make Changes: If an important problem persists because you don’t want to give something up, entrepreneur Seth Godin says the question is not: Should we compromise? It is: Which changes should we make first? (Source: Seth’s Blog).
  • Vacation to Learn Excellence: Consultant Donald Cooper recommends taking a vacation twice a year on Regent Cruise Line’s Splendor of the Seas or visiting a locale that allows you to stay at one of the world’s premier hotels. Immerse yourself in an amazing operation and learn from the excellence around you. Then come back and improve your organization. (Source: DonaldCooper.com).

6. The List: Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Friend

If you must decide whether or not to hire someone you know socially, executive coach Liz Kislik has some advice. In her newsletter she recommends reflecting on these questions:

  • What do I/what does the organization need from this role?
  • What skills are necessary for this job, and does this person have them? If not, am I willing to help them get those skills?
  • Are there any downsides to their behaviour or employment history that are likely to be detrimental to the organization or their colleagues?
  • Do they have special talents that could help move me and the organization ahead?
  • Do I truly trust them, or do I trust them no more than I would a stranger with their skills and experience?
  • Is their thinking both critical and creative? Do they generally have good ideas, and can they express them clearly?
  • Do they avoid drama and gossip? “Your experience of this person as part of your social life may give you a more accurate understanding of their likely behavior. Don’t expect that they’ll do better on the job than in real life just because work is more structured.”
  • Can I determine if they’re willing to work hard, long, and smart?
  • Will I be able to tell them if they’re messing stuff up or not doing things the way I really want them done? Or will I try to overlook problems for the sake of our relationship and because I don’t want to hurt or upset them? In hard times, will I just hope things will get better instead of taking action?
  • If it becomes necessary, am I emotionally prepared to cut them off from their source of income and the other benefits of work-life for the good of the organization or for my own well-being?

7.  Around Our Water Cooler


Consider the Context

The late architect Christopher Alexander had great advice when commenting on rules-based design — they don’t work for every context and problems crop up when they don’t. Five-foot doorways don’t work for six-foot people.

Structures designed by “primitive” cultures evolved through trial and error over years to optimally fit their environments. They would find sturdy, level places as foundations for their homes, in valleys sheltered from punishing winds. When a problem emerged, they would patch the building — the design got better and better.

Strict functional rules (Le Corbusier’s design principles, for example) tend to ignore context. When you can just pour concrete slabs anywhere for your foundation, the terrain doesn’t matter so much.

But what if you can’t?

Standard rules and best practices inevitably encounter fit problems. You might need smaller windows in a bedroom for privacy, big ones in the living room for light or the view, and standard sizes work best if you’re cost conscious.

The best designs seek to reconcile tensions created between goals and achieving them in different environments, which can change over time. Similarly, when designing and implementing strategies, consider the context.

What We’re Reading:

  • Harvey’s Pick: Grow Your Spine and Manage Abrasive Leadership Behaviour by psychotherapist Laura Crawshaw is a clear, practical guide that will help you build the courage to address unacceptable actions by colleagues in leadership positions in your organization or where you serve on a board.
  • Rob’s Pick: I found myself quoting from this classic to help a client last week:  Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky. These are sharp-edged tactics for community activists as well as for those being targeted and taking heat. Examples: Power is not only what you have, but what your opponent thinks you have. Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it and polarize it. Make your opponent live up to their own book of rules. The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative. Keep the pressure on.


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8020Info helps senior leadership teams and boards develop, clarify and build consensus behind strategic priorities. Our services support strategic planning and change processes, marketing communications and research / stakeholder consultations. We would be pleased to discuss your needs and welcome enquiries.

8.  Closing Thought

“Most geniuses — especially those who lead others — prosper not by deconstructing intricate complexities but by exploiting unrecognized simplicities.”

Andy Benoit, assistant to LA Rams head coach Sean McVay